Last Monday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) affirmed a $600,000 jury verdict in favor of a West Virginia coal miner who refused to use a new biometric hand scanner installed by his employer. He claimed that according to the Book of Revelations, the Mark of the Beast brands followers of the Antichrist. He feared that use of the biometric hand scanner would result in such a mark, and requested an alternative identification measure as a form of religious accommodation.
After the employer declined this request, the plaintiff resigned and sued for religious discrimination under Title VII. In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed the jury verdict on behalf of the plaintiff. The court rejected the employer’s defense that the use of the scanner did not present a bona fide conflict with the plaintiff’s religious beliefs. It introduced testimony confirming that the scanner did not leave any type of mark. The court said that the employer misconstrued Title VII’s accommodation obligation. As long as the plaintiff has a sincere religious belief, courts will not question its correctness or plausibility.
The Fourth Circuit also noted that the employer had provided an alternative identification procedure for two employees whose hand injuries made use of the scanner impossible. Therefore, the defendant had little argument that allowing the plaintiff to use the same alternative would have presented an undue hardship.
Employers facing requests for religious accommodations should not condition such measures on their interpretation of the liturgical consistency of the employee’s professed beliefs. In a few circumstances, federal courts have concluded that the requested accommodation was not motivated by religious beliefs, but rather by other factors. However, in the great majority of cases, employers that deny accommodations based on their conclusion that they are inconsistent with the employee’s religion are risking significant legal claims.